This is an account of what it was like to be nine years old and on the receiving end of the bombing power of a well-armed enemy. Like millions in London we were evacuated at the start of the war. My father went to Harpenden with the insurance company he worked for, two days before the war was declared. My mother, grandma, sister Pat and I were evacuated too but we came home in August just in time for the start of the blitz. My father stayed where he was but eventually came home for a visit. This is the story of what happened then and subsequently, seen through the eyes of the child I was and more or less as I wrote it in my diary at the time.
Dad’s come home for the weekend. I can’t think why. He arrived at lunchtime on Saturday and he and Mum have been arguing ever since. He says the place is a pigsty and me and Pat look like gypsies.
‘There’s no point cleaning things,’ Mum says. ‘They only get dirty again directly. Air raids kick up a dust. You’ll find that out if you’re staying. I defy anyone to keep kids clean when they’re sitting in a coal cellar all night.’
He says she could make an effort. His landlady keeps everything really spick and span. It can be done. And that infuriates her.
‘I’m making one,’ she roars. ‘Every single bloody night of my bloody life and don’t you tell me I’m not because you don’t know anything about it. You’ve been safe and sound in the bloody country with your bloody perfect landlady and no bloody bombs. You don’t know the half of it.’
I’ve never heard her swear like that before. I’ve heard the odd word like ‘damn’ but not on and on like that And she’s so cross it’s made her hot. Her face is really red and I can feel the heat of her from where I’m standing. Daddy’s face is hot too but his has gone sort of dark and he’s glaring at her in a really horrid way.
‘That’s right,’ he says. ‘Show yourself up. I should.’ Then he suddenly turns round and stalks out. I don’t know where.
‘Damned man,’ Mum says. ‘Telling me.’
Gran’s getting things ready for the raid. She’s put another deck chair in the cellar for Dad and a couple of blankets. Mum says let him freeze, but Gran says she can’t do that. Not in a raid. It wouldn’t be right.
‘He’ll sing another tune when he knows what it’s like,’ Mum says. ‘You mark my words.’
The raids are starting earlier and earlier nowadays. The sirens sound as soon as it’s dark so we put everything ready when we’ve finished our tea so that we can get dressed and down to the cellar quickly. But everything goes wrong tonight. As soon as the siren starts its horrible wail upwards, Dad begins to shout and by the time I’m dressed and coming downstairs, he’s out in the hall running about and shrieking, with his hair standing on end and his eyes popping out of his head. I can’t get past him.
‘Ella! Ella! Oh God, it’s an air raid. We shall all be killed. What are we going to do? Ella! For Christ’s sake!’
Mum’s following me down the stairs with Pat in her arms. ‘Go down to the cellar,’ she says to him. ‘That’s what you do.’
But he goes on running about. ‘Oh God! We shall all be killed.’
‘Oh get out the way, do,’ Mum says to him. She’s cross but she’s quite calm. She hasn’t even gone red this time. ‘You’re holding us up.’ She pushes past him and I follow her and get past too. My heart’s beating so hard it’s quite painful. I can see it through my dressing gown. This is going to be a terrible raid. I know it is. Are we going to be killed?
Gran’s in the cellar before us and looking really cross with her awful stone face on. It is going to be bad. He’s right. ‘Let’s have Baby settled,’ she says as Mum eases down the stairs. You have to be very careful coming down the cellar stairs because they’re so rickety. The siren’s growling down as we settle into our chairs but Dad’s still running about in the hall. ‘Ella! Ella!’
‘Pay no attention,’ Mum says to me. ‘If he wants to be a fool, let him.’
But he’s making me feel really frightened, especially when we hear the first wave of Germans coming over and the guns start up. He’s at the top of the cellar stairs shouting down at us. ‘That’s guns.’
‘They’re ours,’ Mum says. ‘Are you coming down or not?’
So he comes down and sits in the deck chair Gran’s put out for him. But he’s fidgeting all the time – ‘What’s that? What’s that? Ella! For Christ’s sake! This is awful. It shouldn’t be allowed. Somebody should do something. Why doesn’t somebody stop it?’ – and he doesn’t stop until the first lull. Then he relaxes. ‘Well thank God that’s over,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t have stood much more of that.’
‘Oh you’ll have to stand a lot more of it, don’t you worry,’ Mum says to him. ‘It goes on all night.’
He looks frightened again. ‘Like that?’
‘Why don’t they stop it? Why don’t they do something?’
She’s looking at him as if she pities him. ‘Because this is a war,’ she says. ‘You just have to put up with it.’
At that moment we can hear the next wave coming, engines droning. ‘What’s that?’ Dad says.
‘That’s the German bombers,’ Mum tells us, ‘and before you start shrieking again I suggest you try and control yourself or you’ll wake the baby. Me and Beryl are going to play cards aren’t we darling.’
He’s shrieking already. ‘Oh my God! What are we going to do?’ So it’s no good trying to play cribbage. He’s making me want to cry and I’m too frightened to concentrate. After a little while he jumps up and says he can’t stay in this hellhole another minute and rushes up the stairs, sort of sobbing. Then I start to cry too. I can’t help it. And Pat wakes up and roars like anything and Mum picks her up and cuddles her.
It’s an awful night. He runs up and down the stairs all the time telling us that the searchlights are right overhead and that he can hear the explosions – as if we can’t – and that he can see the shells exploding and they’re much too near and what are the gunners thinking of, and asking when it’s going to stop. By the time it does, we’re all exhausted and I feel really ashamed of him. He’s nothing but a coward and it’s horrible to have a coward for a father.
He goes to bed after breakfast and stays there till dinner. Mum and Gran are really short with him. They serve him his meal but he has to eat it in silence because they won’t talk to him, and when he’s finished his he gets up and puts on his hat and coat and goes.
‘Good riddance to bad rubbish,’ Mum says to Gran.
‘Yellow bellied,’ Gran says. ‘I said so all along.’
I hope he doesn’t come back next Saturday.
He doesn’t and we get back to our routine and then we’re not so frightened. The German planes still sound horrible but we can listen to them without feeling we’re going to get killed any minute and that’s the important thing.
We have air raids every night as regular as clockwork. We’re getting quite used to them. Sometimes, when they’re not noisy, I go to sleep. I never thought I’d do that in the middle of a raid. I wake up when the Germans are overhead. I think the noise wakes me. But it’s good having a nap. It passes the time and you’re not so tired in the morning.
Dad’s been back twice and he roared and shouted both times. I wish he’d stay where he is and so does Mum. She says we’re better on our own and so we are. We play cribbage and take little naps and just get on with it. Gran brings the pot down every night but we don’t use it. She and Mum go up to the toilet in the kitchen if they need to and I go upstairs to the one on the landing, because I don’t like the smell of the kitchen toilet and the raid sounds louder there.
Now it’s November and we’ve been having raids since the middle of August which is three months. The R.A.F. keep shooting the German bombers down but it doesn’t seem to make any difference. They must have an awful of lot of planes. Still at least they didn’t invade us and Mum says they can’t do it now because the weather in the Channel is too bad for them to get their ships across. I wish it was too bad for them to get their planes in the air. What we want is thick snow like we had in the winter. It’s cold now, especially at night in the cellar, but it’s not cold enough.
Tonight they’ve started up really early. We’ve barely had our tea. Pat’s gone to bed but they’ve let me stay up and listen to the wireless.
‘Never a dull moment,’ Gran says. ‘I’ll just put the dishes in to soak Ella. You go down.’
We can hear her clattering about as we wrap ourselves in our eiderdowns and settle into the chairs. It’s a normal sort of night although a bit noisier to start with. Gran makes three mugs of cocoa and brings them down for us and we play cards for an hour or two and I keep the score. Then there’s a bit of a lull and Gran goes up to see Aunt Jane. It makes me want to go too. So when she gets back I sneak away while it’s still quiet. When I get to the passageway that leads to the kitchen I’m of two minds whether to go to the kitchen toilet or to risk the one upstairs. In the end I go upstairs, which is a mistake, because while I’m still on the toilet I can hear the Germans arriving and by the time I pull the chain they’re right overhead. I must look sharp and get back.
I’m half way down the stairs when I hear the first bomb falling. It makes an awful screaming sound as it comes down and it’s very very close. The explosion makes my ears ache. I can hear glass smashing and things falling and the next bomb’s screaming down and this one’s even nearer and much much louder. I’m so frightened I can’t move or call out or swallow or anything. I know there are six bombs in a stick and try to count them, but the next one is screaming so close to me that I know it will fall through the house and explode here and kill me. I try to pray. ‘Please God don’t let it kill me. Let it drop somewhere else. Please!’ But it explodes before I can finish and it’s so close it shifts the ground under my feet. I can feel it rippling as though it’s been turned to water. I think it’s next door but I can’t be sure because there’s a terrible roaring sound coming from the dining room and the hall is full of dust, clouds of it, swirling and buffeting.
Mum and Gran are beside me and they’re taking an arm each and sort of jogging me down to the cellar. I feel sick and my legs aren’t working properly and I’m doing that awful shaking, all over, even in my stomach.
They ease me onto a chair and wrap me in my eiderdown because I’m freezing cold and Gran gets a bottle and pours out some stuff that looks like water and smells sweet. ‘Drink this,’ she says. ‘There’s a good girl. It’ll make you better.’ So I drink it as well as I can for shaking. It’s cool in my mouth and burning hot going down my throat but it doesn’t make me feel better. It makes me feel so sick I don’t know what to do with myself.
‘What is it?’ I ask Gran.
‘Gordon’s Gin,’ she says. ‘It’s good stuff. Just lie still and give it a chance to work.’
I lie still for ages and the noise of the raid goes on all round us. ‘They’ve bombed our road, haven’t they?’ I say to Mum.
‘Yes,’ Mum says grimly. ‘They have but it’s over now. Are you warmer?’
I tell her I am, because that’s what she wants me to say, but I’m still very cold and still shaking. It takes ages before I can stop.
‘Well that’s it, ‘Mum says to Gran. ‘We’re not staying here.’
‘It’s all right saying that,’ Gran says. ‘Where can we go?’
‘You leave it to me,’ Mum says. ‘I’ll fix it.’
She will too. I’m so glad she’s my Mum. She’s so brave and she always knows what to do.
Taken from her Autobiography A Family at War. To read more: amzn.to/1fMDLt4
Beryl Kingston is an 83 year old novelist and Great grandmother. She Lives in Sussex, UK.
Find out more about her on her website http://www.berylkingston.co.uk
Follow her on twitter @berylkingston